Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer//May 8, 2018
//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer
//May 8, 2018
Attorneys can attest courtroom dramas are usually very different from what happens in real life. But a play opening Wednesday at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore this week based on an 80-year-old immigration case tells its story by relying on what actually happened, word-for-word.
Described as a “docu-drama,” “The Book of Joseph” features details from primary-source material, including court transcripts from Ellis Island, about a man’s legal battle to gain refuge in the United States during World War II and his family’s journey to piece together his story after his death.
One scene in the play, written by Karen Hartman, uses actual testimony from a 1940 Immigration and Naturalization Services hearing where Joseph Hollander, his then-wife Felicia and a boy they had taken in as a ward asked the United States to let them stay until the end of the war. (The Hollanders intended to go back to their home country of Poland.)
“I beg for the sake of humanity to grant us a refuge here as we have no other place to go at this time,” Joseph Hollander said through a translator, according to a transcript.
The trio was some of the first immigrants to come over to the United States as Germany was occupying Poland at a time the U.S. was still figuring out its stance on accepting Jewish refugees, according to court records.
How Joseph Hollander’s words ended up on stage starts 46 years after that hearing, when his son, Richard, and Richard’s wife, Ellen, were cleaning out his parents’ home after Joseph and his second wife, Vita, (Richard’s mother) were killed in a car crash. Richard Hollander opened a briefcase he found in the attic filled with countless letters in Polish and German, neatly organized and covered in Nazi swastikas.
He closed the briefcase and kept it shut for nearly two decades, until he decided to get the letters translated.
“I had a very idealized image of my father… it turns out his image was enhanced by what was in the letters,” Hollander, a Baltimore journalist, said this week. “Everybody has a briefcase that we don’t tell the people we care about and we don’t ask the people we care about.”
Hollander had a rough idea about how his father came to the United States from Poland but never asked for details.
“He didn’t want to cause his father any pain,” said Ellen Hollander, a U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore.
The story in the letters, however, turned out to be so powerful it made the translator cry, and Hollander realized the significance of the briefcase’s contents. Hollander then tracked down documents from his father’s immigration case through federal court records in New York and in the national archives.
Combined, Hollander’s collection told the story of a man fighting a legal battle while also trying to save his family in Poland.
For Ellen Hollander, her legal mind was “transfixed” by the breadth of documents. They showed a man who lost his case every step of the way, with the courts standing firm that the trio could not gain entry because they did not have visas. Joseph Hollander and his family were eventually allowed to stay because U.S. ships were no longer sailing back to Europe. They eventually gained lawful entry into the country in 1942.
Ellen Hollander said it was “fascinating” to see how issues were litigated nearly 80 years ago, and she has since developed a presentation about her father-in-law’s case.
“We always learn from others who have gone before us,” she said.
After learning his father’s full story, Richard Hollander wanted to share it.
“I wanted to give a voice to family members silenced in Holocaust,” he said. “Histories are written by kings, generals, princes and presidents and not average people who were killed.”
He reached out to a Holocaust scholar who put the letters in context and then contacted book publishers. “Everyday Lasts A Year” was released in 2007.
The quality of the writing in the letters is “playwright quality,” Hollander said. One line, for example, directly translated from one of the letters, is “I’m breathing but I’m not alive.”
But turning the book into a play only happened after it was read by Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
“The day she looked at the book, she was on a plane to Baltimore,” Hollander said. “She said, ‘This was going to be a play.’”
“The Book of Joseph” premiered in Chicago in February 2017 to rave reviews. It will be at Everyman, in its East Coast premiere, through June 10.
“I really wanted the play to come to Baltimore because it’s our hometown,” Hollander said. “This is where it should be.”
This story has been updated to include that “The Book of Joseph” is written by Karen Hartman.l